The ABCs of How We Learn

I’ve just finished reading the second book on my sabbatical list. The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them was written by Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair, all from Stanford University, who “teach an applied course that emphasizes learning theories that can be put into practice (p. xiv).” About five years ago, they abandoned the available textbooks because they did not unite “theory, research, and practice in a way that was spot-on actionable for the variety of goals that teachers–all of us–bring to education (p. xiv).” This book arose from the organizational strategy they used in their class. They describe a variety of “learning mechanisms, why they work, what they are good for, and how to use them (p. xiv).”

This organizational strategy represents both the major strength and the major weakness of the book. It is helpful that nearly every chapter presents a definition for a learning approach, explains how the approach works, gives concrete suggestions for how to use the approach to enhance learning, explains the positive outcomes that arise when using the approach, explains whether and how people can teach themselves using the approach, identifies risks associated with using the approach, and presents good and bad examples of using the approach. All of these sections identify evidence-based studies where the material was taken from. Each chapter also includes references for further reading about the approach. Finally, nearly every chapter concludes with a 1-2 page summary of the approach. This regular structure for the chapters makes the book a bit unreadable, however. It becomes somewhat mind-numbing to read chapter after chapter organized in exactly the same way. Because of this, I think this book is best approached by dipping into it rather than reading it cover to cover as I did. To facilitate this dipping in, the authors provide a handy chart on p. xvi to guide the reader to particular chapters based on teaching goals.

For example, if I am trying to help my students develop conceptual understandings, the chart tells me I should read about “A is for Analogy,” “J is for Just-in Time Telling,” and “U is for Undoing.” If instead I am trying to help my students develop expertise, the chart tells me to read “D is for Deliberate Practice,” “K is for Knowledge,” and “M is for Making.” I see myself using this book for reference in my teaching as I plan courses in the future. That said, I’m happy I read the entire book as it has given me a broad overview of learning theories that reinforce other reading that I’ve been doing over the past few years. Here is the full set of chapters:

  • A is for Analogy–Finding the general principle
  • B is for Belonging–Silencing anxiety and buying in
  • C is for Contrasting Cases–Discerning critical information
  • D is for Deliberate Practice–Becoming an expert
  • E is for Elaboration–Making memories meaningful
  • F is for Feedback–Supporting self-improvement
  • G is for Generation–Building lasting memories
  • H is for Hands-On–Recruiting the body’s intelligence
  • I is for Imaginative Play–Developing cognitive control
  • J is for Just-in Time Telling–Making lectures and readings work
  • K is for Knowledge–Essay on efficiency and innovation in knowledge
  • L is for Listening and Sharing–Learning more together than alone
  • M is for Making–Producing interest and practical knowledge
  • N is for Norms–Cultivating the rules of the game
  • O is for Observation–Imitating feelings and procedures
  • P is for Participation–Getting into the game
  • Q is for Question-Driven–Creating a reason to inquire
  • R is for Reward–Motivating behavior
  • S is for Self-Explanation–Going beyond the information given
  • T is for Teaching–Taking responsibility for others’ understanding
  • U is for Undoing–Overcoming misconceptions and misplaced reasoning
  • V is for Visualization–Inventing structure for complex information
  • W is for Worked Examples–Acquiring skills and procedures
  • X is for eXcitement–Turning up attention and arousal
  • Y is for Yes I Can–Increasing self-efficacy
  • Z is for ZZZs–Consolidating the memories of the day

The book gives me confidence that we are on the right track in the new ways that we are thinking about general education in light of clusters. This post would be too long if I tried to identify all of the ways that the four tools of clusters are supported by these learning approaches. So let me just focus on one: “Q is for Question-Driven.” As I’m sure you know, we have modified the First Year Seminar so that each section focuses on a wicked problem. According to the book, “Done well, question-driven learning increases curiosity, purpose, attention, and well-connected memories. Complex questions may further boost problem-solving skills and strategies (p. 206). In fact, the chapter goes on to say that “Ill-structured problems are better suited for making learners dive deep (p. 209).” The chapter provides summaries of various studies of medical students to sixth graders that show that question-driven approaches are superior to lecture-based approaches for getting students to remember what they’ve learned and apply it to new situations. Since we are taking an explicitly project-based approach to the (partial) solutions to the wicked problems posed in First Year Seminar, I also found the “M is for Making” chapter to be helpful and insightful.

I would definitely recommend this book for every teacher who is concerned about providing experiences for students that will best support their learning. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you read the book cover to cover. But dipping in and out is likely to provide lots of food for thought.

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